The Washington Post

The Jackie Kennedy tapes: Catty, but won’t change history

Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961. (B/AFP/Getty Images)

For the past few days, “startling” comments by Jackie Kennedy about Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Charles DeGaulle — recorded 47 years ago — have leaked out.

Hype alert: The remarks aren’t that shocking — catty, perhaps — and the leaks are part of a calculated rollout for the book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy,” which will be released Wednesday.

“If people are looking for revelations about her, they will not find them,” said Carl Anthony, one of the country’s leading experts on first ladies. “What I think they reveal is an unerring, all-observing eye.”

Four months after her husband’s assassination, the 34-year-old widow sat down with author Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who recorded hours of interviews intended as an oral record of her time in the White House. The tapes were sealed until Caroline Kennedy decided to release the transcripts, along with an audio recording, on the 50th anniversary of her father’s presidency.

In her distinctive, girlish voice, the former first lady presents her husband in heroic terms and herself as a devoted wife and mother with no political influence. But she makes some sharp, unsparing observations about leading figures of the day.

John and Jackie Kennedy, 1961. (John Rous/Associated Press)

The tapes aren’t likely to change perceptions about the Kennedy administration: the first lady’s remarks just add to the historical record. But they underscore that Jackie was smarter and more politically astute than she let on.

“She did not want to be implored and lobbied by people who wanted her to influence policy, so she assumed a public persona of the ‘anti-Eleanor Roosevelt,’” said Anthony. ”She was very tactical — almost like a spy.”


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